The Price is Right, Isn’t It? Understanding the Cost of Art

choosing art

If you saw a million-dollar painting in a museum, you might think it was worth the price. If you saw the same painting in a reputable gallery, you might think a million dollars was a little expensive. Change the setting to a neighborhood art sale, and you would likely think a million dollars is outrageous. In each of these venues, what is the “right” price?

The truth is that every artist struggled at one time or another with how to price his/her works, and many still do. Price is entirely a subjective number, because art is a subjective thing for both the artist and the viewer. If you have been shopping around, then you have likely gained a sense of proportion in pricing and come to respect that the appropriate venue carries the appropriate quality of art for the right price.

Here are some factors that can affect the price of art:

  • The type of medium and display
  • The training and background of the artist
  • The venue (gallery) and its commission
  • The artist’s celebrity and popularity
Type of Medium and Display

This is the easiest consideration for price. Just like any other product, the price of the item has to cover the cost of the materials, and artists use a wide range of things to create their work.

In this regard, it is easier to acknowledge that a bronze sculpture will cost more than an acrylic painting. Even though bronze is a little less than 19 cents per ounce, 138 pounds are needed to make a flat 12×12 inch sculpture, which would cost more than $400 for the materials alone. While acrylic paint is over $4 per ounce, only 2 to 4 ounces are needed to create a 12×12 inch painting.

The cost of the materials should also cover the costs of equipment used, and the time it took to make the artwork. The more complicated the piece and the medium, the more time and equipment it took to make it, which means the piece required a greater investment on the artist’s part.

This brings us to the expertise that an artist brings to his/her work.

Training and Background of the Artist

Every level of skill that the artist brings to his or her work is time invested in the quality of the piece. Just like any other occupation, this expertise should be compensated. Artists gain expertise through education and training at colleges and universities; in internships, fellowships, and residencies; in dedicated study, such as an apprenticeship or workshop with a master; in shows and exhibitions; and in pursuing their craft as a career.

The longer the resume of the artist, the more you should expect to pay. Of course, this also means that his or her work should be worth it.

The Venue or Gallery

art gallery

Until the advent of the internet, most artists sold professionally through an art gallery. Galleries often asked for exclusive representation of the artist, much like an agent, making a commission on every sale in and out of the gallery. Even though opportunities to sell have expanded dramatically in the last 20 years, many galleries still have this relationship with artists.

Galleries provide a valuable service in that they offer a dedicated, prominent space to showcase the artists’ work. They have marketing savvy and clout with a budget, as well as a roster of past customers who are known art lovers. The artists get to take advantage of this for a commission of 20 to 40 percent.

Today, artists can sell independently, online or in cooperative spaces such as open studios. This eliminates the gallery (and its commission) and lowers prices. However, the customer loses the curation that the gallery ensured. Without the gallery’s direction, customers must decide for themselves on the quality, taste, and investment value of any work they purchase.

Hence, customers will pay more at a gallery, but this is the cost of the curation and knowledge the gallery provided to both the customer and the artist.

The Artist’s Celebrity and Popularity

This is the most ambiguous factor in an artwork’s price. Have you heard a lot about this artist? Then you are going to pay more. This is like the law of supply and demand. The more popular the artist, the more in demand his or her artwork will be, which will drive prices upward. This seems to be a good indication of its investment value. If the artist is famous, then your purchase will grow in value.

Or maybe not.

The art world is even more fickle than Wall Street. Because of the pervasiveness of the internet and social media, a flash-in-the-pan sensation can take the art world by storm, and then go out like a flame. There is no reliable way to predict the investment value of any piece you buy.

selling art

By Serge Melki (Flickr: Painters at Montmartre) via Wikimedia Commons

So … Is It the Right Price?

Ask yourself why you are buying a particular piece. A work of art in your home will most likely represent you and complement your lifestyle. If it is next to your couch, will people notice the artwork or the couch? Which one cost more? Because that’s usually the one that guests will look at.

When deciding how much you want to spend on any piece, make sure that you are comfortable with it. If you have the means, consider a reputable gallery. You can be sure that the prices are fair, and that the artist is highly regarded. If you want to gain a better idea of where a piece came from and get closer to the artist, shop at open studios and buy directly from the artists. It may take a little more time to learn about fairness in pricing and the market, but you may find an undiscovered treasure.

Ultimately, it’s most important to make sure that you purchase a piece you truly enjoy, and that it will work well in your home.

The Price is Right, Isn’t It? Understanding the Cost of Art was last modified: January 24th, 2017 by Ginger Russell
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